Through Sandy Recovery, an Opportunity to Bridge “Two Cities”
As Bill de Blasio prepares to take over City Hall in January, various interest groups are anxious to see whether the newest darling of the progressive movement can make good on his promise to unite the “two cities” he repeatedly referenced throughout the campaign season.
As Bill de Blasio prepares to take over City Hall in January, various interest groups are anxious to see whether the newest darling of the progressive movement can make good on his promise to unite the “two cities” he repeatedly referenced throughout the campaign season. While de Blasio will have many hurdles to surmount swiftly— beginning with negotiating labor contracts and the budget—one area where many believe he can make an immediate impact in bridging the equality gap in the city is through the Superstorm Sandy recovery process.
Sandy largely blindsided the Bloomberg administration, not only through the sheer physical force and subsequent destruction of the storm but also in regard to how to funnel the proper resources to the people who needed it the most—displaced low-income residents and homeowners literally and figuratively under water. The storm’s unprecedented nature has lent a trial-by-fire aspect to the recovery, and while many have praised Bloomberg for his vision and ideas about how to rebuild—in June he laid out an ambitious recovery blueprint with 250 recommendations, from flood walls to levee systems, to better protect the city’s power infrastructure—some have criticized the execution of his ideas.
Bloomberg’s Build It Back program, which uses federal funds to offer homeowners the option to repair or leave property severely damaged during Sandy, has been slow in helping people on the ground, with the Associated Press reporting that since the program’s inception only one person has had her home purchased by the city. Community advocates say that many people displaced or affected by Sandy simply missed the deadline to apply. Further, it is not clear when the city will have enough money to cover all of the roughly 25,000 Build It Back applications, according to Deputy Mayor Cas Holloway.
“You have people who continue to be displaced, living in moldy homes, living in otherwise untenable conditions, folks who are in debt and have maxed out credit cards because they have to pay for food and shelter of some kind or fix their house. The situation is pretty dire out there for Sandy survivors, particularly ones that were already struggling before the storm,” said Nathalie Alegre, the coordinator of the Alliance for a Just Rebuilding, a coalition of labor unions and community, faith-based, environmental and policy organizations dedicated to an “equitable and sustainable” Sandy recovery process.
Where Bloomberg’s vision for recovery entails more grandiose ambitions—such as the large-scale infrastructure needed to mitigate the effects of climate change— the Alliance and some other organizations like it support a more granular approach. They view the coming influx of federal aid money as the foundation for a more inclusive, equitable city, and recommend using the additional resources to increase accountability and transparency, invest in affordable and public housing, and create sustainable jobs, among other goals.
“A community like mine, which was underdeveloped, which the city and federal government did not pump money into the way that it should have years prior, Sandy now gives us the opportunity to rebuild our communities in much better shape,” said New York City Councilman Donovan Richards, who represents parts of the Rockaway section of Queens, which incurred substantial damage during the storm.
Richards and fellow Councilman Brad Lander are helping lead the way on increasing transparency by co-sponsoring, along with 34 other Council members, a bill that would establish an online database for the public to track how federal aid dollars are spent, and which contractors receive the money. Richards said that many of his constituents have been “duped” by contractors who make cursory repairs to a person’s home.
“People’s mold would come back after they came in and supposedly fixed their homes,” Richards said. “This legislation would require contractors and subcontractors to be online, and if they had any misdeeds on their record it would be publicly stated, so that we know that the money is going to good contractors.”
The majority of on-the-ground community organizations are in agreement that public housing residents are suffering most severely. The New York City Housing Authority—already inundated with a backlog of repairs before the storm—has been even slower in meeting the increased demand in the wake of Sandy. Anecdotally, advocates say that residents are still complaining about mold, intermittent electrical service and a lack of heat or hot water, among other problems.
Nonetheless, housing advocates see Sandy as an opportunity for the city not only to conduct a thorough assessment of unmet housing needs but also to satisfy de Blasio’s stated aspiration of building or preserving 200,000 units of affordable housing in the city. Since the Economic Development Agency and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development will likely be distributing much of the federal aid money to developers and real estate companies, advocates want de Blasio to direct them to make affordability a primary criterion of any new development as part of the Sandy recovery.
“HPD is a big agency that is rebuilding with families after Sandy; there are ways that HPD can have an affordability component, that whoever receives public money [will be monitored to] make sure they will actually build for the people that are displaced,” Alegre said. “Right now we’re seeing jacked up rents and people not being able to afford where they used to live.”
Advocates also maintain that de Blasio can tackle the critical challenge of job creation through the Sandy recovery effort. The Alliance recommends the mayor use his executive authority to apply community-hire standards to all Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery federal funds, so that 30 percent of all wages for Sandy jobs go to workers hired from low-income communities. The rebuilding is an opportunity to train workers in new skill sets, according to Bettina Damiani, project director at Good Jobs New York, who said apprenticeship programs such as those offered by many labor unions can help diversify a worker’s professional experience.
“Unions and companies have been doing training programs for 50, 60 years,” Damiani said. “We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel; these kinds of relationships have existed in the past. It’s not about creating it from scratch.”
However he chooses to orchestrate the Sandy recovery, it is imperative that de Blasio bring a diverse group of stakeholders to the table and solicit strong community input, according to the Alliance and other like-minded advocates. The hope is that the new mayor might blend a more equitable approach to rebuilding with the bold vision of mitigation and prevention laid out by his predecessor.